THE phonograph, the phonograph,
‘Tis a wonderful thing, the phonograph;
But what happened to me will make you laugh,
When I brought home a new phonograph.
I felt rather gay,
So I thought I’d essay
How a kiss would come out
In a phonograph way.
I said “Oh, you darling! delighted to meet you,
With a chaste osculation permit me to greet you;”
Then I fired off a regular volley of kisses
Like a parting salute of a school of young misses.
But Jane, who that moment came in at the door,
And never had heard such a sound there before,
Said, “Oh, sir, how can you? What are you doing?”
“Oh, Jane!” I exclaimed, “there is mischief a-brewing.
How could you with such indiscretion address me,
Why not in some silent way seek to repress me?
As soon as your mistress comes home from her walking
This horrid machine will set to a-talking;
The things will be lively ‘tween you and your missis,
For when, after ‘darling’ and hundreds of kisses,
Your voice exclaims, ‘Oh, sir!’ and ‘what are you doing,’
She’ll be sure to suppose it was you I was wooing.”
That’s the opening of Robert Ganthony’s comic poem “The Phonograph” (1900), just one of a number of fascinating nineteenth-century texts to be found within Patrick Feaster’s catalogue of “phonographic” culture at PHONOZOIC. I love this poem in particular because it taps into the Victorians’ erotic fascination with the machine, while the speaker’s curiosity about “How a kiss would come out / In a phonograph way” playfully suggests how technology might reconfigure the terms of intimacy. Does kissing still work? It’s as if we have to figure out what kisses are all over again.
When the poem enters “playback mode,” and we’re asked to forget what we’ve “seen” and simply listen to the encounter, things get really interesting.
Why is it that, whenever popular fin-de-siècle literature borrows the phonograph to perform its writing, the results turn out to be scandalous? In stories such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Voice of Science,” and “The Japanned Box,” the stigmatic marks of the machine introduce to narrative the discourses of gossip and indiscretion.
Does the essential scandal of phonographic inscription lie in the medium itself, rather than any particular message it might convey? Edison’s analog recording machine relies fundamentally upon the intercourse of bodies for the transcription of sounds. The physical intimacy between signal and medium captured by the phonograph subjects all communication to innuendo, transferring the idea of reproduction from a textual to an erotic register.
If the phonograph detaches voices from bodies, it does so by capturing the voice as a body, as sonic vibrations in physical contact with the recording cylinder. Consequently, an innocent conversation can be re-read as an enigmatic moment of physical contact. What sort of thing would the phonograph record? Most often, we find, scenes that reproduce the logic of its functioning, by exploiting this new and extraordinary sensitivity to touching.